Walking downstairs to my damp basement office, I sat at my desk surrounded by empty coffee cups to make a phone call. Giving the small space heater a crank, I pulled my notes together recalling the lunch meeting I had just one week earlier. The prospect clearly needed my creativity. We had a great discussion and I even covered the check. This was a sure thing!
I dialed his number, pleasantly surprised I caught him in his office. Asking if he had any new thoughts and when we could get started, his hesitation caught me off guard.
Magically his immovable challenges we had discussed in detail vanished in under a week. What had been a sure thing, was suddenly a “no way.”
The creative process is an emotional one, especially when working to solve a problem for someone else. I invest myself deeply into the process, so it’s nearly impossible to not take things personally. When an idea of mine is rejected, I feel like a ten-year-old whose mother has just wadded up and tossed out my painted macaroni classroom project. It hurts every single time.
I founded my company with no capital, no contacts and no clients. Even though I had low overhead, working out of my basement home office my first few years, I still lost a substantial amount of money buying lunches, coffees and generally trying to get people to listen to me.
Being in sales previously, mentors, business leaders, CEOs, founders, etc. all had painted an accurate picture of the path I was on. Anything new, creative and different would be met with rejection. They were right. The path was challenging, scary and wreaked of rejection. I knew what I had signed up for, so admittedly, rejection wasn’t all that surprising. After a while however, I started getting jaded and angry. I would hang up my phone, slam my fists on the table and grow upset of the “idiot” who would dare waste my time, get a free lunch, and then say they just weren’t interested in my ideas but “go ahead and call back later.”
I finally started to anticipate rejection a mile away and got really good at brushing it off. I knew that persistence was key, so I pushed forward. Finally, something changed. I started getting somewhere. People started listening and I started getting bigger projects with bigger clients who had bigger budgets. I had no idea what had happened, but whatever it was, it was working. My ideas started becoming more creative and solutions to difficult client challenges were accepted and we overcame “impossible” challenges. My blog I had been working on for years with almost no readers, started getting 10, 50, 100, 150, 200 readers a day and people started listening. I started speaking at events, got quoted in publications and wrote for major publications. What had changed?
Looking back now, I know exactly what changed: my reaction to rejection. Because I anticipated my creative ideas would be rejected from the get go, I failed to embrace the experience when it actually happened. I viewed rejection as a period, instead of a comma. I had failed to learn the real lessons behind all these CEOs, founders and business leaders rejection stories. I made the assumption that the experts doing the rejecting just didn’t “get it,” so I would push onward waiting for that guy or gal who did. All that time I had viewed rejection as an obstacle, but failed to notice it as an opportunity. As minuscule as this distinction may sound, it is very, VERY important.
I was viewing those legendary creative mentors, business leaders, CEOs and heroes as infallible, fully developed superstars, their only obstacle being incompetent experts that didn’t “get it.” But what if — rejection was the single, solitary thing that pushed creative heroes to greatness?
I see budding creatives making the same mistakes. They are great at brushing off rejection but fail at embracing and learning from it. Eventually, they become angry at the world, only to be metaphorically buried with their ego. Viewing rejection as someone else’s problem elicits frustration and questions others. It places us in tunnel vision, obsessed over other’s narrow-mindedness.
Viewing rejection as your own problem, however, does something amazing: it helps us question ourselves instead of questioning everyone else. It allows us to edit ourselves and points out problems that we would have never noticed otherwise. It helps us open our own perspective and improves our process. It opens our minds to others viewpoint and sparks new ideas. It makes us more creative.
Don’t waste your time waiting for others to “get it.” Invest time “getting” others.
This article was originally written for The Washington Post.